Monday, October 13, 2008

The fantastic in the work of JMW Turner

Joseph Mallord William Turner, the early 19th century British painter famous for his landscapes, also worked in another vein less talked about. Some of his work deals with the fantastic, from images of death riding a pale horse to sea monsters. Also falling into this category are his imagined landscapes of Biblical and historical scenes, such as the Deluge and Rome burning.

The fantastic can be defined as work that deals with the inner life of the artist, including visions, the grotesque and dream states. Artists considered squarely in this genre would include Hieronymus Bosch and William Blake.

Parallels can be drawn between Turner’s fantastical works and those of his contemporary Blake. The main difference between the two is in execution and style. Blake looked back towards the simplified, flat forms found in early Christian illuminated texts, while Turner worked in a more realistic and academic style.

Art historians have generally ignored Turner’s visionary work and focused instead on his role as a precursor to modernism, exemplified by his later paintings that forgo the classic landscape for a technique that borders on the abstract.

This work was an exploration of the atmospheric as shown in such pieces as 1842’s Snow Storm—Steam-boat off a Harbour’s Mouth and Rain, Steam and Speed from 1844.

Turner believed that light was the emanation of God’s spirit and in his later years his work focused almost exclusively on the effects of light. His work that presages later art movements comes directly from a mystical belief system that he tried to convey through paint. On his deathbed he supposedly uttered the words “The sun is God.”

Turner’s fascination with the fantastic isn’t strange considering the time and place he lived in. London at the turn of the 18th Century was experiencing a surge in new forms of Christian mysticism and spiritualist beliefs, from the Swedenborgians to Mesmerism.

In “Sunrise with Sea Monsters,” a late work by Turner, a strange fish-like creature sits upon a hazy yellow sea. This painting brings together Turner’s mystical exploration of light and his fascination with the imaginary. The title is a 20th century invention, but never the less Turner’s “sea monster” is an amalgamation of different fish and therefore a creature that came squarely from his fevered imagination.